Charms of Chambal

Once known for its ravines and dacoits, Chambal also has a river that is one of the most serene and clean in the country having a wide variety of avian and marine life, writes Lalit Mohan

THE Chambal is a lucky river. No one worships it. No temples or large towns dot its banks. Perhaps that is why it is one of the cleanest perennial waterways in India.

Bhareshwar Mahadev temple at Bhareh. The temple detiy was the favourite of dacoits, like
Bhareshwar Mahadev temple at Bhareh. The temple detiy was the favourite of dacoits, like Man Singh and Madho Singh, whose blessings they sought before they set out to rob
Photos by the writer

This distinction has come at a price. Ram Pratap Singh or RP for short, the young owner of the Chambal Safari Lodge says: "Its original name was Charmanyavati. In Mahabharata days this area was a part of Shakuni’s kingdom. The infamous dice game was played hereabouts. After her attempted disrobing, Draupdi cursed any one who would drink its water. And if this wasn’t bad enough, a king, Rantideva, sacrificed several cows on its banks bringing eternal infamy to it."

But the Chambal still beckons. Ten of us left from Gurgaon on a Friday morning for Jarar, 70 km southeast of Agra, where the lodge is located. The lodge, situated close to the river, is part of a large farm owned by RP’s family. His great grandfather built it 100 years ago. The stables have been converted into dining areas. There are eight single-room huts and a few rooms in the main lodge. Quiet rural and idyllic, it is a good place to unwind even if one has nothing else on the agenda.

After lunch we headed for the Chambal in Sumos. After a short stretch on a pucca road, the track turns into the ravines. And then, suddenly, the river looms into view. We piled into two motorboats and set off on our ‘safari’.

The Chambal must have worked off the ill effects of Draupdi’s curse because it is one of the most serene and clean rivers in the country.

This was the dry season, so it had shrunk in width. The water was gentle and blue. In 1979, a 400 km stretch, 1 to 6 km wide, including the river, was included in the National Chambal Sanctuary. And a wide variety of avian and marine life found shelter here.

A local lad Dalveer was our guide. Throughout the two-hour trip he pointed out a spot-billed duck, some barbets, pelicans, a pair of spotted owls and many more birds.

There are over 300 species of birds in this area. Birds of prey — eagles, kites, buzzards, vultures, hawks and their kin — alone number 50 in variety. This was a particularly good time to see ducks, cranes, storks and the other winter visitors. Most humans who visit Jarar are, in fact, bird-watchers and they come mostly from abroad.

But marine life is no less exciting. No fishing is permitted here. "Look 7 o’clock," Dalveer yelled suddenly and we saw a large river dolphin – in fact three of them, jumping briefly, one by one, out of the water. Dalveer said that there are at least 100 of them in the Chambal.

A little further, basking on the rocks were a large number of gharials. These alligator-like creatures have long snouts. Their colour merges with that of the rocks on which they rest, so it takes a while to spot them from a distance, or to count them.

Getting closer, the outboard motor was switched off. In total silence, except for the sound of waves gently lapping the sides of the boat, we watched them. Apart for the occasional yawn, they remained very still. A few young ones frolicked a little. Then the sun started to go down and we turned back.

This stretch of the Chambal marks the boundary between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. As we meandered over the river, we must have crossed the dividing line somewhere, because I received an SMS from my mobile company: "Welcome to Madhya Pradesh."

The next day our destination was Bhareh, 100 km away. This is where the Chambal joins the Yamuna. Two things stood out during the ride. One, the excellent state of the road, to have such a surface in the heart of UP means that the PM’s Gram Sadak Yojna is working. Two, in many schools in the dusty villages we crossed, the children had a clip-on necktie as a part of their uniform. In sartorial matters no one wants to be left behind!

Halfway down the distance, an observation platform has been erected on a promontory located high on a bend in the Chambal. This is a good spot to get a panoramic view of the river and the ravines, which sheltered dreaded dacoits of yore.

At Bhareh the ‘unholy’, clean Chambal joins the holy, dirty Yamuna. Actually, the former is much wider, but the latter starts about 18,000 feet closer to God, and collects better references on its way. So, the river carries the name Yamuna hereafter until it merges with the Ganga at Prayag.

A path through mustard fields takes us much closer to the birds. Pelicans, spoonbills, cormorants, storks, geese, sandgrouse, flamingos — the list is endless — bask in large numbers in the vast expanse of the confluence.

Bhareh’s other claim to fame it the Bhareshwar Mahadev temple. Accessed over 70 odd steep steps, this was the favourite deity of dacoits like Man Singh and Madho Singh, whose blessings they sought before they set out to rob and kill.

Almost at the same height one can see the ramparts of the Bhareh fort. The ruler was on the side of the rebels in 1857 and after they won the war, the English blasted all but one of its sides.

The lodge at Jarar itself sees aver 200 species of birds in the year. We could also spot nilgai, peacocks and deer. But, it provides no TV or newspapers. I had wondered how a news addict like me would survive for two days. But I did and feel all the better for it.